After losing Scott Paxson, Matthew Rice, and first round pick Tamba Hali after the 2005 season, many people expected a drop off in 2006. For the most part they were right, but the drop wasn't nearly as huge as people expected.
Everyone expected big things out of Jay Alford as the lone returning starter and the leading returner in sacks for the Big Ten (8.5 sacks in 2005). Early on he saw the double teams Hali saw in 2005 and his stats didn't reflect how good of a player he is. But he ate up blockers allowing the linebackers to roam free and came on strong at the end of the year with four sacks in the last four games to finish the year with a total of eight sacks.
Replacing Scott Paxson was Ed Johnson who sat out in 2005 after starting several games in 2004. The drop off in speed from Paxson to Johnson was noticeable. But what Johnson gave up in speed he made up for with power and strength. Johnson was a force in the early part of the season recording three sacks in the first three games. His technique was simple. Knock the center or guard or both on their ass and get to the quarterback which he did quite well. As the season went on you could notice Johnson was becoming less noticeable while Alford became more of a factor. That was teams adjusting their blocking to focus on Johnson with double teams at the expense of blocking Alford. Both guys were tremendous run stoppers and could get to quarterbacks that held the ball too long. Johnson's downfall was his stamina. You may or may not have noticed, but it seemed like he could never play more than three plays in a row without jogging to the sideline for a rest. On the plus side, Johnson's undersized lungs allowed freshmen Jared Odrick and Phillip Taylor to see lots of playing time.
Sometimes even two blockers weren't enough
The one glaring weakness on this defense was defensive end. The Lions just couldn't find somebody that could dominate on the outside ala Tamba Hali or Courtney Brown. An early indication of the lack of depth at the DE position was when Tim Shaw was moved from linebacker and named a starter. Shaw was overmatched all year long. Despite finishing second on the team with six sacks, Shaw was rarely a factor from the outside pass rush. He couldn't bull rush offensive tackles that outweighed him by 60 pounds. He didn't shed a lot of blocks and make tackles, but he did what he had to do disrupting plays just enough to allow his teammates to make a play. Taking a rush up field to force a runningback to cut inside. Holding his ground to force him to take an extra step toward the sideline. These are the things that didn't show up on the stat sheet but had a huge effect on the game. He was the classic case of a brilliant player in the wrong position. But to his credit he never complained. He never sulked on the bench. He just went out every play and got beat up by men with twice his size and half his heart.
Seemed like a good idea
The defensive end spot opposite of Tim Shaw was supposed to be filled by Jim Shaw who by all accounts had an awesome spring and fall practice and was rumored to have a breakout year. But early injuries to his knee and ankle hampered him all year and he was never the dominating force we all hoped he would be only playing in nine games finishing with 9 tackles and half a sack.
When Shaw wasn't playing, Josh Gaines was usually on the field. Only a sophomore, Gaines is still developing but showed improvement from week to week. There were games where you could see him repeatedly beating his man and getting a hand on the quarterback, but he never had that breakout game where he got 2 or 3 sacks. His best game was probably Illinois. He repeatedly got pressure on Juice Williams disrupting his pass timing and flushing him from the pocket. His most memorable play of the season was when he picked up a fumble in that game and stumbled toward the endzone for the touchdown that would put the Illini away only to be caught from behind and fumble the ball right back to Illinois.
Also seeing playing time in one or two series of every game was true freshman Maurice Evans. After an off season in the weight room I would expect him to be the early favorite for one of the vacant DE spots next year.
Overall this group did pretty well but they were never a dominant line like Michigan's front four. They did what they had to do to misdirect running plays and keep the linebackers free to make the tackles. But their pass rushing was weak allowing teams like Notre Dame, Minnesota, and Michigan to pick the secondary apart. In my preseason evaluation I gave them a B-. By Midseason I upgraded them to a B+. Looking back that was probably too generous. Since none of them ever developed into a threat on the pass rush, I'm going to give them a final grade of a B.